Week Eight – Walkthrough & Reflection

It is now approaching the end of the eighth week of this semester, and slowly but surely Josh and I are progressing towards some fully presentable ideas for the crit next week.

As per the end of Week Seven, the premise for this week was to come up with a solid third game idea that we could then present at the crit along with the other two. Since the others were focusing primarily on elements of exploration and open worlds, the first thing we cemented for idea number three was that it should be completely different. After the meeting we had with Adam at the end of Week Six we were also keen to explore this idea of “abstract” game design (for example, one suggestion he had was to make a game that works off an Apple Watch i.e. text based) and so wanted to come up with an idea that reflected this. This new idea of course would also still need to be in-keeping with our overall themes of space and “pushing through the fear of the unknown”. So with these basic elements nailed down, we got cracking.

The initial premise for the idea came from Josh – he suggested that perhaps we could be in control of an AI in this game, so rather than being in charge of the explorer themselves (like the first two ideas) we’d be in charge of the AI in charge of the explorer’s equipment or spacecraft. We then began discussions into how this idea could work in an abstract manner, and thinking along the lines of movie The Martian and the “space” sections of my Trepidation research I suggested that perhaps the AI could be managing a human base on Mars/the Moon, and so would be charged with tasks such as keeping the base intact and most importantly keeping the human occupant alive. This idea incidentally would also work quite well as a text-based game, as you could get regular updates concerning the base sent to your phone or Apple Watch or whatever.

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With an appropriate placeholder title for Idea Three, we then set about filling in some of the details. The AI would be in charge of a lot of things, including pressure maintenance, protection from storms, oxygen levels and keeping radiation levels down (not to mention keeping “Tommy” alive). Most of the planetary hazard ideas came from Josh’s research, along with the basic layout of what the base should look like. For the time being, we decided on a top-down viewpoint for the game in order to give the AI a godlike view over the base they maintain (as they essentially control life and death here after all). Obviously this perspective could change (especially if we decide to go text-based) but for now it works well as a starting idea.

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With the setting then mostly established, we set about writing the narrative. The third idea had the space theme down but so far had no mention whatsoever of my “pushing past the fear of the unknown” theme. The game itself was also becoming a bit simulation-y so in order to combat these two growing problems we decided to implement a story. In a similar manner to Idea Two we wanted it to be a bit of a slow burn, mainly to slowly introduce my theme but also to perhaps give the illusion initially that the game is actually a simulation but then quietly introduce strange or weird elements that then begin to contribute to an overall narrative structure.

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The story we then came up with was this:

  • You’re an AI in control of the daily operations of a human created Martian habitat, with a sole human living there as a maintenance man until the full colony crew arrives.
  • You perform daily tasks such as fixing pressure issues, maintaining the oxygen supply and managing power usage. The human Tommy wanders about performing his own duties in the day and sleeping at night. It’s your primary job to keep him alive.
  • Dust storms occur every so often
  • 300 days until the colony crew arrives – each day is 10 minutes long
  • Random Events –
    • Random oxygen malfunction event
    • Random pressure loss event
    • Random airlock opening + power loss at 3am
  • At day 110 a massive dust storm hits and half the base loses power. You then spend several days getting each of the areas back, as each area comes back online you notice odd things – objects have moved, objects there that weren’t there before, glitchy appliances
  • Random events increase in quantity/intensity after day 110.
  • At day 165 there’s a Contamination Alert in hydroponics and the entire area is automatically attacked by Decontamination. You have a timed response to either depressurize completely and destroy all the crops or use a sterilising agent where the crops will survive.
  • Sterilize choice –
  • At day 185 at around 2am all the doors to Tommy’s quarters close and the room loses power. You cannot see what is happening but Tommy’s heart rate and bio functions behave erratically. The power then comes back on and everything seems fine.
  • You automatically assign rations due to the low food levels which massively decreases Tommy’s morality levels, he starts resenting the AI.
  • At day 225 Tommy snaps and attacks the computers in the main room, resulting in you losing control of the pressure systems to him. You knock him out via hypoxia and lock him in his room.
  • At day 255, while he’s locked in his room there is a pressure drop in the supply room and you lose power there, so you must let Tommy out to fix it. He disappears into the supply room, everything appears fine again so you let him roam.
  • At day 300 the relief crew arrive to take Tommy home, as the rocket blasts off into the atmosphere you lose contact with it and shortly after it blows up for reasons unknown.
  • Depressurize choice –
  • If you choose this there is still a 25% chance the contamination will survive.
  • Because of the rapid depressurisation a lot of systems go haywire, resulting in malfunctions in appliances as well as false positives on pressure and environmental systems.
  • At day 225 you cycle down power at night as usual, except this time unknown to you you accidentally drop the oxygen levels in Tommy’s room. He barely survives and accuses you of trying to kill him.
  • At day 240 he stages a revolution and successfully takes over pressure and oxygen systems from you. You try to take them back by playing a series of minigames (?).
  • Various malfunctions occur and Tommy grows increasingly resentful of you, he calls the incoming rocket and tells it to hurry up.
  • At day 260 they arrive, and attempt to destroy you. You must resist them and after a while because you want to live you have a long battle with them where you try to kill them – depressurizing, cycling off power, let radiation shields down etc.
  • You either kill them and survive or they kill you and you die.

The game begins much like a simulation, but a storm then hits after a while and then things start to happen. My “fear of the unknown” theme then begins to present itself, first in odd events occuring (random depressurization, power losses etc.) which all slowly build to a climax in day 165 where the AI (player) must make a choice; decontaminate and risk losing all Tommy’s food or leave it and hope that it was just a false alarm. This presents an interesting narrative element as it now branches off depending on which one you choose, so playthroughs will not always be the same story. The actual “threat” is never revealed (as it should be – in keeping with my idea of the “unknown”) and the narrative largely focuses on Tommy and the AI instead, with the “threat” acting more as a catalyst to events rather than a primary villain.

With idea number three pretty well fleshed out, it was then time to start thinking about prototypes. This was something we would need for the presentation in the crit in Week Nine, and making them would also give us a good idea of how feasible our ideas were as well as how they would work practically in code. With this in mind, I then spent the remainder of the week working on a pretty comprehensive prototype for idea number one; the NASA Space Exploration game.

We knew already from previous weeks that we wanted this idea to be two dimensional, and so I took inspirational elements from Lunar Lander as well as looking into a number of realistic space mechanics and ideas such as orbital mechanics, gravity and planetary bodies. I also then dived back into my Trepidation research as well as Josh’s space research, and took things like orbital “burning” (i.e. acceleration and deceleration in space), essentially trying to make the prototype as realistic as possible (again inkeeping with our original ideas for the game).

The final result that I then had on Thursday was this:

As you can see, the player controls a rocket. This rocket has orbital manoeuvrability using small thrusters on its sides and back (usage of them can be seen via the triangular “discharge” sprites) and the player can use these to transverse the rather small game “map”. There are two planetary bodies each with their own gravitational pull, and the player is affected by them if they fly too close. One problem I faced pretty early on was the limitations of two dimensional sightlines, as I found that the player had difficulty seeing where they were going if the planets or asteroids were not within their limited sight range. To combat this, I added a “Zoom Out” mechanic where the player can essentially go into a “map” of sorts and so see exactly where they are in relation to other elements in this Solar System (this mechanic can also be seen in the GIF above).

Josh and I then showed the prototype to Adam on Thursday, and while he enjoyed certain elements of it he was worried that it wasn’t reflective enough of our main ideas for the game, in particular my “pushing through the fear of the unknown” theme. We then explained that this was just a prototype to test mechanics and that those elements would be present in the final game if it was made, but Adam then said that in order to really get across what our game was going to be about, we needed to have the core game elements in the prototype both for the presentation and for seeing if it was actually feasible to make the theme work in this type of game. This made sense and Josh and I both agreed on it, so I then set to work making version two of the prototype.

 

By the end of Friday, it was finished. The full coding walkthrough of the finished product can be found above. You can also click on the picture below to actually play the game, controls are:

W – Upward Thrust
A – Rotate Left
S – Rotate Right
R – Toggle Boosters for more powerful Thrust
M – Toggle Zoom In/Out
SPACE – Restart

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A number of things were changed for this second version. For a start, I made it look a tad more realistic by changing the background colour to black (the colour of space!) instead of blue. I then set about adding an objective of sorts – basically the player now has to successfully complete a “translunar injection” by escaping the orbit of the planet they start on and landing on the nearby Moon. In the way are two fast-moving orbiting asteroid fields, which will cause the rocket to uncontrollably spin if hit more than once. The rapid and deadly nature of these asteroids make for a pretty decent if not slightly on the nose demonstration of my “pushing through the fear of the unknown” theme, as the player won’t want to hit the asteroids but if they want to complete the game and win they will have to face them. I also added rocket “boosters” to help the player escape the planet’s gravity as well as adding a nose to the ship to make it more rocket-like. Finally, I added a “death” event where if you fly too far away from the planetary bodies, are spinning too fast or hit the planetary bodies too hard you will die and will have to restart the game.

In my Formative Feedback one-to-one on Friday, Adam liked the new prototype a great deal more than the previous one, even going so far as to head into the Second Year’s room with it and getting a volunteer to have a go. He then suggested I should put the game on Itch.io (which I have, link here) and try and get feedback from other people that way as well as going around the studio and getting my fellow Games Design students to have a go. Adam reckoned my theme was definitely present in some form in the prototype, although maintained that perhaps the game was a little more in the realm of frustrating than it was scary (but this is something we can iron out if we actually decide to make the full game). He then suggested that we should sit down and figure out exactly who the game is for and why exactly we wanted to make it, as answering these questions would probably give us a clearer idea of what direction to take the game. Artistic and visual research was also prompted, as we had only really touched upon it in our research and so would need to look into it more in order to come up with an overall visual style.

Talking to Josh and I afterwards, Adam then made a slightly controversial suggestion; we should ditch our second (Europa) idea entirely and focus instead on making the first and third ideas in more detail. Josh and I had both expressed previously that we thought Europa was the weakest of the three, and Adam agreed. Having also spent time coming up with details and prototypes for each of the three ideas, we had also found ourselves leaning far more towards wanting to make ideas one and three rather than two, and had pretty much decided amongst ourselves already that we weren’t going to take Europa forward. Adam also maintained that the first and third ideas were much stronger, and worried that if we spent too much time focusing on idea two we might not give three the attention it deserves. That combined with our general lack of interest in making Europa compared to the other two pretty much decided that idea’s fate. It wasn’t a decision we made lightly, but I do feel it was the right one.

 

Reflection On The Week

This week has been an incredibly busy one (hence the massively long blog post, sorry) but we have accomplished a great deal. We have a pretty solid third idea for a game that is actually pretty interesting, and already we’re struggling to choose which one of the first and third ideas that we like the best as a team. We also have a pretty good prototype to go with our ideas for the first game, and that combined with Josh’s designs for the Solar System that he created over the course of the week has given us a great foundation for building the game as well as a good platform for presenting in the crit next week. It was pretty sad to see our second (Europa) idea go, but ultimately I do feel it was for the best as we had much less interest in it than the other two ideas. It was 3D and survival-based, something that has been done a great deal before, so not only would it be very difficult to create technically but also not massively unique (at least, not compared to ideas one and three). Letting it go also gives us more time to focus on the other two ideas, which is more than likely going to be very beneficial.

Overall, I feel that this week has been very productive and rather useful (particularly with Adam’s feedback). Next week, my plan is to create a prototype for idea three as well as refine elements of both ideas and generally get them presentation ready in time for Friday’s crit.

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